When historians look back at how dramatically and suddenly Mississippi reversed decades of foot-dragging and outright resistance to changing its controversial state flag, they will most likely focus on two factors.
The first, of course, was the spark of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis while in police custody. That dramatically documented instance of police brutality became the tipping point for what has evolved into a national reckoning on race, including an examination of white Southerners’ affinity for Civil War iconography. Mississippi’s 1894 flag with its Confederate battle emblem had long been among this phenomenon’s leading exhibits.
As much as Floyd’s death, though, crystalized the issue, it took more than that to move a tradition-bound, heavily conservative Legislature, which had repeatedly ignored calls to change the flag, including not only from black lawmakers and other Democrats but also from some business groups and even some of the state’s top Republican elected officials.
It took a cascade of mostly economic pressure — and some helpful religious prodding — to first get lawmakers to consider the issue worthy of consideration so late in the 2020 session.
That same pressure, even more critically, convinced them to bypass what had become the conservative mantra about the flag: namely, that change, if change were to come, could only be by popular referendum.
One can argue which of these provided the biggest nudge: the Mississippi Economic Council’s full-court press, including the public support of many of the state’s top business leaders; or the NCAA’s tougher stance on the flag, which included a ban on all postseason play in Mississippi as long as it remained the state’s official banner, and the threat that the Southeastern Conference might soon do the same.
All of this — and even Southern-based Walmart’s decision to stop displaying Mississippi’s flags at its stores — carried the implied threat that Mississippi was about to feel some major economic consequences from the flag, and that the state better act before the ball of monetary repercussions starting rolling too fast down the hill.
Although moral persuasion can change people’s hearts over time, the power of the pocketbook generally works much faster at changing people’s minds.
It certainly convinced Gov. Tate Reeves, who just a couple of weeks ago was considered a significant obstacle to changing the flag, to switch sides, at least tacitly, and to back away from a campaign promise.
Reeves and other conservatives hope to ameliorate their base by giving voters final approval on the replacement flag and by mandating that the words “In God We Trust” be part of the design. Whether that will work to offset the anger of those who feel betrayed by Reeves after he initially backed a popular vote to change the flag before quickly changing positions to sign the Legislature’s bill remains to be seen.
But the main groups they worried about were the titans of the corporate and sports worlds. Their customers and employees would most likely have compelled them to come down hard on Mississippi if it had continued to ignore the nation’s growing distaste for racially tainted symbols.
The state’s political leadership acted wisely to not tempt that possibility.